Secrets to habit change

When People Use Willpower to Harm Themselves

How can you turn "wrong-way willpower" into "right-way willpower?"

Remember when you were a teenager and your parents turned down your plea to do something that they thought was too dangerous or inappropriate?  When you protested, saying, "Well, everyone else does it," they replied, "And if everyone were jumping out of a second-story window, would you do it, too?"

Well, yes, apparently many people would, even if they didn't want to.  And, shockingly, they could be using their willpower to do it. 

Usually we think of willpower as an internal strength that is used to attain a worthwhile health, career, or life goal.  When people eat too much or save too little, we judge them as having "not enough willpower." And sometimes lack of willpower could be the issue.  But some people use their willpower to force themselves to engage in dangerous behaviors, even when they dislike those behaviors, for the sake of acceptance by a person or group.

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A recent article by researchers Catherine Rawn and Kathleen Vohs raised my awareness about this issue.  In "When People Strive for Self-Harming Goals," the researchers point out that sometimes people binge-eat, drive dangerously, or smoke cigarettes not because they lack willpower, but because they deliberately choose activities that might lead to social rewards.  (Obviously, there can be numerous reasons for conscious, self-destructive behavior, even some positive ones, like protecting your buddies in an army unit. I'm just focusing on the issue of peer acceptance in this blog.)  

For an action to "count" as the use of willpower to self-harm, the authors list three conditions: (1) The person must dislike a particular risky behavior, but (2) desire strongly to be accepted by a particular group; and (3) believe that the risky behavior will lead to acceptance by that group.  This is different from the proverbial "peer pressure" to take an action; rather, it is self-imposed pressure to gain hoped-for peer acceptance.

Here are some examples of using willpower to self-harm, what I call "wrong-way willpower:"

  • In a college sorority, a young woman continues to gorge herself, despite feeling painful stomach distress, in order to bond with a group whose norm is to binge-eat.
  • A normally responsible teenager drives recklessly to impress three friends who are passengers.
  • A 60-year old divorced woman doesn't insist that her partner use protection even though she knows that her anxiety about HIV-AIDS will take the pleasure out of sex. (Those three little words, "Use a condom," mean so much at any age.)
  • A gay man actively seeks HIV-positive status to join a particular "club."

In these cases, the ruling motivator is the desire to be accepted by others despite risk of personal pain, harm, or even death. The motivator of "other-acceptance" even overrides the basic human motivators of "survival," "freedom from pain," and "health."

As the authors dramatically point out, "An underage drinker swallowing beer at a sorority party, contrary to the stereotypic view, might be exerting a lot of self-control to choke down each bitter gulp." 

Can you recall a time when you deliberately used your willpower against your own best interests even when you were well-aware of your qualms about doing so?  Are you still exerting "wrong-way willpower?"

If so, the hopeful note is this:  You have willpower.  How could you turn your wrong-way willpower into right-way willpower? There's therapy.  There are treatment programs and support groups.  And there's one strategy that almost always works: Make the deliberate effort to seek out a person or group that will cheer you on for doing what's really best for you.  In short, join a different club.

© Meg Selig

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For more tidbits, quotes, and comments about willpower, habit change, and motivation, please like me on Facebook and/or follow me on Twitter.

Source:  Rawn, C.D. & Vohs, K.D., "When People Strive for Self-Harming Goals:  Sacrificing Personal Health for Interpersonal Success," in eds. Vohs, K.D. & Baumeister, R.F., Handbook of Self-Regulation (2011), NY: The Guilford Press, 374-389.



Meg Selig is the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.


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